Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How To Fix a Flat Character

In creative writing, a flat character, also referred to as a two-dimensional character, is typically characterized by a lack of complexity, depth, or development. They are often stereotypical, following simple and predictable behavioral patterns, with a single defining trait or quality that doesn't change or evolve throughout the story. Flat characters may serve a specific purpose in a narrative, such as propelling the plot or highlighting characteristics of other, more developed characters, but they lack the emotional depth and personal evolution that make characters feel human and relatable.

Well-rounded, or three-dimensional characters, are vital to storytelling because they engage readers on a deep, emotional level, making a story more immersive and relatable. Unlike flat characters, well-rounded characters have distinct personalities, complex motivations, evolving emotions, and dynamic relationships. These attributes allow readers to connect with characters, invest in their journeys, and see parts of themselves reflected in the story. Furthermore, well-rounded characters often drive the plot, create compelling conflicts, and bring richness and depth to the world of the story.

To transform a flat character into a well-rounded one, several key steps can be undertaken:

  • Develop the Character's Backstory: Every character has a past that influences their behaviors, decisions, and worldview. Fleshing out a character's backstory can provide much-needed depth.
  • Create Complex Motivations: Characters should have clear motivations that drive their actions. These motivations can be multifaceted, evolving, and sometimes conflicting, which adds layers to the character's personality.
  • Give the Character Distinctive Traits and Quirks: Traits and quirks make a character unique and memorable. They can also reveal a lot about a character's personality and history.
  • Establish the Character's Emotional Arc: An emotional arc represents a character's emotional journey throughout the story. Crafting this arc allows the character to grow and evolve, making them more relatable to readers.
  • Create Dynamic Relationships: A character's interactions with others can reveal different facets of their personality. Relationships also provide opportunities for conflict, growth, and change.
  • Make the Character Active: Characters should be active participants in the story, making decisions and taking actions that propel the plot forward.
  • Revise and Seek Feedback: Writing is an iterative process. Constant revisions, along with feedback from readers or writing groups, can help identify areas where a character needs more development.

Understanding a flat character

Flat characters are typically one-dimensional entities with a limited range of characteristics and emotions. They are defined by a single trait or role and do not undergo significant growth or development throughout the story. Here are some common characteristics of flat characters:

  • Simplicity: Flat characters often embody a single trait, role, or stereotype. They may be the loyal best friend, the strict teacher, or the bully. These characters serve a specific function and don't exhibit traits beyond their established roles.
  • Predictability: Due to their simplicity, flat characters behave predictably. Their actions and reactions follow a clear pattern based on their defining trait or role.
  • Lack of Growth: Flat characters typically remain the same throughout the story. They do not experience character arcs or personal growth, nor do they learn significant lessons.
  • Limited Backstory: Flat characters usually have little to no backstory. If a backstory is present, it's usually straightforward and serves to further reinforce their single defining trait or role.

Issues a flat character can present in a story

Although flat characters can serve specific functions in a narrative, an overreliance on them or the use of them as primary characters can lead to several issues:

  • Lack of Reader Engagement: Readers may find it hard to relate to or care about flat characters due to their lack of depth and development. This could reduce the overall emotional impact of the story.
  • Predictable and Unexciting Plot: Flat characters often lead to predictable storylines. Without character growth or change, the plot can become stale and uninteresting.
  • Limited Conflict: Flat characters can limit the potential for conflict, which is essential for a compelling story. Without inner conflicts or complex inter-character dynamics, the story may lack tension and excitement.

Recognizing a flat character in your own writing

Recognizing a flat character in your own writing involves assessing your characters critically. Here are some signs that you might have a flat character:

  • Static Personality: If a character has the same personality traits from the beginning to the end of the story, without demonstrating growth or change, they might be a flat character.
  • Lack of Motivation or Goals: Characters who lack clear motivations, desires, or goals, or who only have superficial ones, are often flat.
  • Unchanging Relationships: If a character's relationships with others do not evolve or face significant challenges throughout the story, this could be a sign of a flat character.
  • Absence of Backstory: A character with little to no backstory, or a backstory that doesn't influence their actions or decisions, might be a flat character.
  • No Emotional Arc: If a character does not have an emotional journey or transformation, they are likely to be a flat character.

If you identify these signs in your characters, it doesn't mean your writing is poor. Rather, it's an opportunity for further development and depth, turning your flat characters into well-rounded individuals who captivate your readers.

Developing the character's backstory

Backstory provides the historical context for a character, supplying the experiences, relationships, and events that have shaped them before the story begins. It is a vital aspect of character development as it helps to explain why a character is the way they are and behaves as they do. The backstory can lend depth to a character, making them feel more real, complex, and relatable to the reader. It also provides opportunities for character growth and change, which are essential elements in a compelling narrative.

Techniques for crafting an engaging backstory

Crafting a character's backstory requires careful thought and creativity. Here are some techniques to help you do it:

  • Reflecting on Their Past Experiences: Look at your character's life as a timeline and consider the experiences they've had over the years. What events or circumstances have left an imprint on them? What challenges or accomplishments have they experienced? How have these experiences influenced their outlook on life, their habits, or their fears and dreams?
  • Creating Significant Life Events: Identify major milestones in your character's life. This could include childhood memories, traumatic events, achievements, or losses. How do these moments influence their behavior or the way they see the world? These significant life events can serve as turning points that contribute to your character's overall personality and motivations.
  • Understanding Their Upbringing and Cultural Background: Consider the environment your character grew up in and the cultural background they come from. How have these factors influenced their values, beliefs, prejudices, or mannerisms? The character's upbringing can greatly affect their worldview, attitudes, and behaviors, which in turn influence their interactions and relationships in the story.

How backstory influences a character's decisions and actions

A character's backstory plays a crucial role in determining their actions and decisions. Characters, like real people, are products of their past experiences. Their history will inform their motivations, fears, desires, and reactions to the situations they encounter. For example, a character who grew up in poverty may be driven by a strong desire for financial security, influencing their career choices and personal relationships.

Additionally, the backstory can create internal conflict, adding layers of complexity to the character. For instance, a character who was betrayed in the past might struggle with trust issues, affecting their ability to form close relationships.

A well-developed backstory makes characters more compelling and multi-dimensional, providing a solid foundation for their actions and decisions within the narrative.

Creating complex motivations

Motivation is the driving force behind a character's actions and decisions. It's what propels them forward in the story, giving them a reason to overcome obstacles and strive towards a goal. A character's motivations make their actions feel meaningful and grounded, as they provide context and reasoning for the choices the character makes. Without motivation, a character's actions can seem random or unconvincing. By creating complex motivations, writers can add depth to their characters and make their journeys more engaging for the readers.

Differentiating between superficial and deep-seated motivations

Understanding the difference between superficial and deep-seated motivations can add layers to your character's personality:

  • Superficial Motivations: These are motivations that are immediately apparent and often tied to the character's external goals. For example, a detective might be motivated to solve a crime to receive a promotion, or a student might want to get good grades to gain their parents' approval. While these motivations are valid and important, they only scratch the surface of the character's psyche.
  • Deep-Seated Motivations: These motivations stem from a character's innermost desires, fears, or unresolved issues. They are often connected to a character's past and form a significant part of their emotional landscape. For instance, the detective might also be driven by a deep-seated need for justice due to a past injustice they experienced, and the student might be seeking validation and love.

Methods for generating and intertwining multiple motivations

Characters become more realistic and engaging when they are driven by multiple motivations, as real people often are. Here are some methods to generate and intertwine multiple motivations:

  • Explore the Character's Past: Use the character's backstory to identify potential motivations. Past experiences, relationships, and significant events can all lead to powerful motivations.
  • Identify Internal and External Goals: Create a balance between the character's external goals (what they want to achieve in the world) and their internal goals (what they want to achieve within themselves). These two types of goals can give rise to different, sometimes conflicting, motivations.
  • Consider Personality and Values: The character's personality traits and values can also generate motivations. For example, a highly ambitious character might be motivated by the desire for power or success, while a compassionate character might be motivated by a desire to help others.
  • Create Conflicting Motivations: Realistic characters often face internal conflicts. These can be created by giving your character conflicting motivations. For example, a character might be motivated to pursue a dangerous adventure for the sake of their loved ones, but they might also be motivated to stay safe and not risk their lives.
  • Develop Dynamic Relationships: A character's relationships with others can also provide motivations. Interpersonal dynamics, whether they're positive (friendship, love) or negative (rivalry, enmity), can lead to a variety of motivations.

By intertwining multiple motivations, you can create characters that are richly layered, dynamic, and engaging, driving the story in compelling and sometimes unexpected directions.

Giving the character distinctive traits and quirks

Character traits and quirks are the unique qualities, behaviors, or habits that differentiate a character from others in your story. They are important tools for making a character feel real, relatable, and memorable. Traits can provide insights into a character's personality and their view of the world, while quirks can make a character distinctive and captivating. Together, traits and quirks add depth and color to your character, making them more human and engaging to the reader.

Balancing positive and negative traits

Just as in real life, fictional characters should possess both positive and negative traits. This balance helps make a character believable and multi-dimensional:

  • Positive Traits: These are qualities that are generally seen as good or desirable, such as kindness, bravery, intelligence, or compassion. They can make a character likable and admirable to the reader.
  • Negative Traits: These are qualities that are generally seen as flaws or shortcomings, like stubbornness, impulsivity, insecurity, or selfishness. They can create conflict, drive character growth, and make a character feel real and flawed.

A well-rounded character should have a mix of positive and negative traits. The balance doesn't have to be 50/50, and the proportion can shift over the course of the story as the character grows and changes.

Examples of effective character quirks

Character quirks are unusual habits or peculiarities that set a character apart. They can be physical, behavioral, or mental, and can range from the subtle to the eccentric.

Characterizing Your Character

Here are a few examples:

  • Physical Quirks: These are distinctive physical habits or features, like a character who constantly twirls their hair when they're nervous, or a character who has a distinct limp from an old injury.
  • Behavioral Quirks: These are unusual behaviors or routines, like a character who insists on eating the same meal every day, or a character who can't start the day without a cup of coffee.
  • Mental Quirks: These are distinctive ways of thinking or viewing the world, like a character who sees everything as a mathematical equation, or a character who is overly superstitious.

Remember, quirks should not be random; they should reveal something about the character's personality, history, or worldview. The best quirks are those that are tied to the character's backstory, motivations, or experiences, adding depth and complexity to the character.

Establishing the character's emotional arc

The emotional arc refers to the internal journey a character goes through in a story, which usually involves a change in their emotional state, beliefs, or personal growth. It is often tied to the character's motivations, relationships, conflicts, and resolutions. The emotional arc is crucial as it provides depth to the character and engages the reader on an emotional level. It not only drives the story forward but also allows the reader to connect with the character's experiences, making the story more relatable and impactful.

Structuring a compelling emotional arc

Creating a compelling emotional arc involves various elements that must be carefully structured and interconnected:

  • Setting Up Emotional Stakes: Emotional stakes are what the character stands to gain or lose on their journey. It's crucial to establish these stakes early in the story to create tension and engage the reader's empathy. For example, if a character's goal is to reconcile with a long-estranged sibling, the emotional stakes might involve the chance for a renewed relationship and healing from past wounds.
  • Crafting Emotional Conflict and Resolution: Conflict is the engine that drives a story and challenges the character, prompting growth and change. Emotional conflict can arise from internal struggles, such as fears, insecurities, or moral dilemmas, or from external sources, such as relationships or situations. The resolution of these conflicts should align with the character's emotional growth, leading to a satisfying conclusion of the emotional arc.

How the emotional arc can influence the story's plot

The emotional arc is intrinsically linked to the plot, often driving the actions and decisions of the character, which in turn shapes the events of the story. As the character goes through their emotional journey, they will make choices based on their changing emotional state, desires, and growth. This can lead to new conflicts, resolutions, and plot developments.

For example, a character who starts with a fear of commitment (emotional arc) might avoid serious relationships (plot point). As the story progresses and the character confronts their fear (emotional arc), they may decide to pursue a meaningful relationship (plot point), creating new challenges and directions for the story.

In essence, the emotional arc can dictate the character's motivations and responses, making it a significant factor in the development of the plot. By intertwining the emotional arc with the plot, writers can create a cohesive, engaging, and emotionally resonant narrative.

Creating dynamic relationships

Character relationships are a vital tool in storytelling. They serve to reveal different facets of a character's personality and beliefs that may not be evident when the character is alone. Interactions with others can bring out their strengths, vulnerabilities, values, and contradictions. Relationships also provide opportunities for conflict and growth, and they contribute to the richness and complexity of the narrative. The way a character relates to others—whether they are friends, family, enemies, or lovers—can add depth to their character and make them more multi-dimensional and engaging.

Techniques for crafting complex character relationships

Creating compelling and complex relationships between your characters requires careful thought and planning. Here are a few techniques:

  • Developing Relational Dynamics: Consider the power dynamics, emotional bonds, shared history, and common goals or conflicts that define the relationship. These elements can shape the interactions and influence the development of the characters involved.
  • Utilizing Conflict and Resolution: Relationships are often defined by conflict and resolution. Characters may have disagreements, compete, or have differing views that lead to tension. The way they handle and resolve these conflicts can reveal their values, flaws, and growth.
  • Showing Change Over Time: Realistic relationships are dynamic, not static. Show how the relationship changes over the course of the story. This could be due to external events, character growth, or shifts in understanding and feelings.
  • Using Show, Don't Tell: Show the relationship through the characters' actions, dialogue, and reactions, rather than simply telling the reader about it. This makes the relationship feel more real and engaging.

Examples of character dynamics that can add depth

There are numerous types of character dynamics that can add depth and complexity to your story. Here are a few examples:

  • Friendship: The dynamics of friendship can reveal a lot about a character's loyalty, values, and capacity for empathy. Friendships can provide support, create conflict, or spur growth.
  • Romantic Relationships: Romance can bring out a character's desires, vulnerabilities, and emotional depth. It can lead to joy, heartbreak, conflict, or growth.
  • Rivalries: Rivalries can showcase a character's competitive side, ambition, or insecurities. They can spur characters to action, lead to conflict, or prompt self-reflection and change.
  • Mentor-Mentee Relationships: These relationships can reveal a character's wisdom, patience, or nurturing side (for the mentor) or their aspirations, growth, and gratitude (for the mentee).
  • Family Relationships: Family dynamics can provide insight into a character's history, values, and personal struggles. Family can be a source of comfort, conflict, pressure, or motivation.

Remember, each relationship should serve to reveal new facets of the characters involved, contributing to their depth and complexity.

Making the character active in the story

Making a character active in the story involves having them take charge, make significant decisions, and influence the plot's progression. This not only makes them more engaging and dynamic, but it also allows them to showcase their motivations, personality, and development, making the narrative more compelling for readers. Here is the difference between passive and active characters:

  • Passive Characters: These are characters who mainly react to the events around them, rather than taking charge and driving the action. Their decisions and actions tend to be influenced or controlled by other characters or circumstances. While passive characters can play a role in some narratives, they may not be as engaging or dynamic as active characters.
  • Active Characters: These are characters who take initiative, make decisions, and influence the course of the story. They actively pursue their goals and deal with the consequences of their actions. Active characters are often more engaging because they drive the plot rather than being driven by it.

Importance of active participation in the plot

Active participation is important because it allows the character to influence the storyline and shape their own destiny. It gives them agency, making them more dynamic, relatable, and engaging. When a character actively participates in the plot, it showcases their motivations, personality, and development, making the reader more invested in their journey. Furthermore, their actions and decisions can lead to exciting plot twists, conflicts, and resolutions, keeping the reader hooked.

Ways to integrate the character's actions and decisions into the storyline

Integrating a character's actions and decisions into the storyline involves ensuring these actions align with their motivations and goals, thereby driving the narrative forward. It also includes depicting the consequences of their actions, presenting important choices for them to make, and showing their growth and development over time as they learn from their experiences. Here are some ways to integrate the character's actions:

  • Align Actions with Motivations and Goals: Ensure that the character's actions align with their motivations and goals. This gives their actions purpose and makes the plot feel cohesive.
  • Use Conflict: Use conflict to spur your character into action. This could be a conflict with another character, a conflict within themselves, or a conflict with their circumstances.
  • Show Consequences: Show the consequences of the character's actions. This can lead to new plot developments and can also show the character's growth or change.
  • Create Choices: Give your character important choices to make. This not only drives the plot forward but also reveals the character's values, priorities, and growth.
  • Ensure Growth: As the story progresses, the character's actions should reflect their development. For instance, they might start making different decisions as they learn from their experiences and grow.

By making the character active in the story, you allow them to shape the plot and engage the reader in their journey, making your narrative more compelling and dynamic.

Constant revision and feedback

Revisions play an essential role in the character development process. As you reread and revise your work, you can assess how effectively you've portrayed your characters and their growth throughout the story. You might find areas where you can add more depth to a character, adjust their motivations, or better showcase their personality. Revision is the opportunity to refine your character's dialogue, actions, and interactions, making them more consistent, believable, and engaging. It's also a chance to ensure your character is active and influences the plot in a meaningful way.

Seeking and incorporating feedback from readers or writing groups

Feedback from others can provide valuable insights into your character development. Other readers or writing group members can point out areas that are unclear, inconsistent, or lacking depth, as they bring fresh perspectives and reactions to your work. They might notice aspects of your character that you didn't realize were flat or unconvincing.

Here are some ways to incorporate feedback:

  • Be Open-Minded: Understand that constructive criticism is meant to help improve your work, not to undermine it. Take the time to consider the feedback you receive before deciding whether to implement it.
  • Seek Clarity: If you don't understand a piece of feedback, ask for clarification. Understand the reasoning behind the critique before making changes.
  • Prioritize: Not all feedback needs to be incorporated. If you receive conflicting feedback or suggestions that don't align with your vision for the character, you can choose not to implement them.

Recognizing when a character starts to feel more rounded and authentic

Recognizing when a character starts to feel more rounded and authentic can be a challenge. Here are some signs:

  • Consistency: The character behaves consistently according to their established personality, beliefs, and motivations.
  • Relatability: The character resonates with readers on an emotional level. This could be through shared experiences, emotions, flaws, or growth.
  • Active Participation: The character drives the plot through their actions and decisions, rather than being passively moved by the plot.
  • Growth and Change: The character grows or changes over the course of the story in a believable way.
  • Complexity: The character exhibits a balance of strengths and flaws, has complex motivations, and interacts dynamically with other characters.

Remember, creating well-rounded characters is a process, and it's okay if your characters don't feel perfect in the first, second, or even third draft. Keep refining, seek feedback, and trust your instincts as a writer.


Developing a flat character into a rounded, dynamic one is a crucial aspect of creative writing that can profoundly enhance the overall impact of your narrative. It requires careful consideration of various facets such as backstory, motivation, traits, emotional arc, relationships, active participation in the plot, and constant revision based on feedback.

Remember, every character is a work in progress, and transforming a flat character into a three-dimensional figure is a journey, often requiring multiple iterations and plenty of patience. As you navigate this process, stay true to the heart of your character, while allowing them room to grow and evolve. Through this transformation, you're not just breathing life into your characters, but also creating a rich, immersive story that captivates your readers, resonating with them long after they've turned the last page.

Header image by Charnchai Saeheng.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.